Remarks at Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) End-of-Year Program

Bruce Wharton
Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Department of State
Washington, DC
June 14, 2017

(As prepared for delivery)

Thank you Karl, and good afternoon to all our guests and partner organizations.

Wow, this is quite a crowd! As the acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I get to attend a lot of events, but few are as full of promise and excitement as this one. And that’s because the ties that you – the next generation – make with America are critically important to our collective future.

I know it’s the end of the day and I want to leave time for your questions, so let me try to keep this short. To begin, I want to congratulate you on your courage and vision in taking part in the YES program. It is no small feat to leave your family, friends, and community behind for a year, to stay with families who were strangers, but who now I hope have become dear to you. You went to schools in cities that were new and foreign to you, but now you have become part of communities where you built lasting friendships. That is an amazing achievement – and part of the promise of the YES program. Thank you for what you have done to help Americans understand more about your country and for the connections you have built between your country and mine.

Senator Richard Lugar and the late Senator Edward Kennedy created the YES program nearly 14 years ago. We are indebted to them for their vision: to bring high school students from countries and territories with significant Muslim populations to the United States for an academic year of study, leadership building, and cross-cultural understanding. This vision is now more important than ever to building bridges that bring peace and security in a troubled world.

Over the past 14 years, YES has grown from 13 countries and a group of 163 students per year, to 900 students from over 40 countries and territories per year. YES students have touched the lives of countless Americans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, making a profound impact on their American host schools and communities. Here’s a remarkable fact: this year, YES students completed over 76,000 hours of service in their communities over the academic year, with nearly half of all students completing more than 100 hours. That is truly impressive and inspiring.

During Global Youth Service Day in April, YES students participated in more than 1,100 activities across the United States. More than 5,000 community service hours were completed over that one weekend alone by YES students, benefitting more than 835,000 Americans. You volunteered at homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens. You held clothing and canned food drives. You cleaned up parks and rivers and planted trees. So from all of us to all of you – a very sincere thank you!

And this was just one day among the many in which you spent time with Americans from all walks of life, seeing multiple sides of America and Americans. And you showed them about your life too. Over the course of your year, tens of thousands of Americans attended more than 8,300 presentations by YES students in 875 schools and 570 host communities across the United States.

During these presentations, 68,000 Americans learned how to greet people in one of the more than 40 languages spoken in YES countries. More than 43,000 tried dishes from YES countries (that’s a lot of good food!), while 55,000 experienced new music and dance.

I’d like to share just a few stories from your group that I think are both impressive and representative of your efforts to create lasting, positive impressions on your American high school classmates and communities:

Hotro Masni Damanik from Indonesia, who was hosted in Cottondale, Alabama, was nominated for her high school’s ACE Award, an honor recognizing students who excel in academics, character, and demonstrating extra effort throughout the year. She was also selected to participate in a county-wide honor choir.

Aladdin Maasin from the Philippines, who was hosted in Brookwood, Alabama, completed over 130 volunteer hours and took part in a three-day weekend providing disaster relief to Louisiana flood victims. During the year he also held a teacher’s assistant position at his high school.

Ahmed Mateen from Pakistan, who was hosted in Theresa, New York, completed 115 volunteer hours and was selected for a scholarship to participate in a volunteer spring break trip to Hawaii. Mateen, a survivor of the 2014 Peshwar Public School attack, was a cultural rock star in his U.S. school and community – giving countless presentations about his country and culture.

These are just a very few examples of the many great things I know each of you have done and the incredible experiences you’ve had in the United States.

As you prepare to return home, it is my hope that you will continue to be effective and enthusiastic advocates for civic engagement in your home communities, just as you’ve been here in your American host communities. Every year YES program alumni return home and start new projects to improve their communities, but I get the feeling that the class of 2017 will set new records for doing this.

Beyond volunteering, many YES alumni also go on to become leaders in their chosen fields – including business, academia, arts and culture, and politics. They utilize the new skills, networks of friends and mentors, and deeper cross-cultural understanding acquired during the program to make a difference in their own country.

So now it’s up to you. Many generous host families, communities, and American high schools have opened their homes and classrooms to each of you. They did it because they believe – as do I – in your power to help shape a better world. When you return home, please stay connected and let us know how the YES Class of 2017 is fulfilling this promise.

Now I’d like to hear from you and would be happy to answer some of your questions.

Thank you.